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Writer, director, and TV producer David Hollander visits MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage students

David Hollander, Northwestern alumnus and creator of The Guardian and Ray Donovan, spoke to a rapt group of MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage students in Norris Hall October 14.

Hollander (C90), covered a variety of topics from how the script can change during collaboration on set to how students can work on developing their own unique perspective and voice.

“Curate an aesthetic,” he told the students. “Be a fan. Be honest about what you like. I like soft rock – ironically and not ironically. I like a song that makes you want to cry. I think it’s apparent in my work. I’m an emotionalist at my core. I’d rather risk something to feel something. Really, I’m just a crybaby pretending to be a tough guy.”

He also urged students to learn how to collaborate, and talked about how working with actors can lead to changes in dialogue, especially when veteran actors challenge what’s on the page. Hollander showed a scene from Ray Donovan, and passed out copies of his original script, asking students to read along and discuss differences in the script and filmed scene. Students noted small changes, like added dialogue, and larger ones, like how the characters’ moods might change from the page to the screen.

Many of those differences, he said, came about because of how actors, such as the show’s star Liev Schreiber, saw the scene differently. Hollander said as a showrunner, he works to create an environment where actors feel comfortable going “off book.”

“I’m not going to fight about every word in dialogue,” Hollander said. “I’m not Aaron Sorkin. Different people have different rules. But, if the structure holds, then I’m not going to fight it.”

Hollander, who was nominated for an Outstanding Director Emmy this year for Ray Donovan’s season 3 finale, said feedback can help the script become better.

“I wrote this script in twelve days,” he said. “Finales are always on the fly, because you’re simply out of time…You don’t get to be Francis Ford Coppola working on Apocalypse Now but a couple of times in life. Most of the time, you’re trying to stuff ten pounds of [stuff] in a five-pound bag.”

When asked about his big break, Hollander joked, “I’m still waiting for it.”

He discussed how he came to Northwestern wanting to be an actor, but after auditioning for a musical behind Brian d’Arcy James (C90), decided he just didn’t have what it took to be an actor.

“Realizing I wasn’t a good actor was my first big break,” he said. “Then, I transferred to Performance Studies and Frank Galati taught me about chamber theatre and storytelling. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a writer. My big break was really learning what I wanted to be.”

After graduation, he focused on playwriting, but said his next big break came from tragedy.

“My mother died,” he said. “It was the worst thing that ever happened to me, but I decided to write about it. It was the truest thing I ever wrote.”

The resulting play, The Sun Dialogues, got rave reviews, and eventually led to a screenwriting deal with Paramount.

“I learned to write under a microscope,” he said. “I’m terrified to this day. What if what I’m writing is bad? Part of me still feels that my big break is coming. I’m still hoping I write something good one day.” 

Hollander urged students to take advantage of being in Chicago, of not being in New York or Los Angeles, in terms of finding their own voices and in learning about storytelling in authentic ways. In fact, when hiring writers, Hollander said he looks for an outsider’s perspective.

“I don’t like the establishment in my [writer’s] room,” he said. He also urged students to take advantage of the guidance from professors at NU.

“It’s like you’re creating our marketing materials for the MFA,” quipped David Tolchinksy, who helped moderate the discussion. Tolchinksy is the co-founder and director for the MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage, as well as chair of the Department of Radio/Television/Film.

Hannah Ii-Epstein, a first year MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage student, said she learned a lot from Hollander during the talk.

“I found him to be very honest about the challenges facing writers, but at the same time, he offered insights about how we can succeed,” she said.

— Cara Lockwood